Colorado needs a felony DUI law
At the close of another state legislative year, we’re usually just hoping lawmakers didn’t do too much harm. This session, however, was marked by one situation where they didn’t do enough good.
I’m talking about the Legislature’s failure to pass a felony designation for repeated driving under the influence convictions. Many were surprised when the Democrat-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee killed the bill that would have created a class IV felony for an individual receiving a third driving under the influence conviction in a five-year period or for within 15 years of the first violation.
Interestingly, one of the witnesses testifying in favor of this bill was a Grand Junction resident who’d been injured in 2011 by an individual who reportedly had four prior alcohol-related driving offenses.
Colorado is one of only four states not to impose any felony penalties for repeated driving under the influence convictions. The other states are Pennsylvania, Maine and Maryland.
You can be charged with a felony in our state if you seriously injure or kill someone while under the influence of alcohol or drugs; however, the recalcitrant repeat offender who has yet to cause such an injury as a result of multiple violations eventually reaches a maximum penalty of one year in the county jail with few tools available to prosecutors and the courts beyond that limit.
In Colorado, the percentage of fatalities reported as being alcohol involved is disproportionate to the number of individuals probably operating vehicles under the influence. Obviously the more intoxicated one becomes the more likely that person will have a serious accident. During the 2007 reporting year almost 31 percent of traffic fatalities involved alcohol, and, if you’re wondering, your best chance of finding someone on the road driving drunk is a weekend, between about 8 p.m. and 3 a.m.
In my experience, and this is anecdotal, I found that the higher the number of prior convictions, the more likely the perpetrator is to have an alarmingly high blood-alcohol content.
Many individuals who receive a DUI are folks who have made a singular mistake and will most likely not repeat the incident, but some are not so easily handled and will be back in the system again and again.
With a traffic misdemeanor cap on charging, no matter the number of prior incidents, the court is limited in the incarceration it can impose, as well as the length of time the court can order supervision and treatment for the offender.
The purpose of imposing a felony conviction on repeat drunk driving offenders is not just to enhance the severity of the sentence to incarceration but also to bring into play the ability to have much longer periods of supervision under felony guidelines and more severe consequences for noncompliance.
As a felony conviction carries much more baggage for an individual in society, it can, when appropriate, be a significant motivator when used as part of a deferred judgment and sentencing plan.
This is when a defendant would receive essentially a contract, with the court and district attorney, which would allow supervision and treatment over a longer period of time than presently available. If the defendant complies with the terms and conditions, his guilty plea would be withdrawn and there would be no felony conviction.
Part of the difficulty of passing bills creating new felonies or enhanced sentencing is the perceived cost to the Department of Corrections. In the case of the bill we’re discussing, a $1.6 million price tag was affixed to it; however, Colorado’s prison population is actually decreasing and studies have shown that fewer than half of individuals charged with felony DUI offenses in other states did any period of prison incarceration.
The actual cost therefore may be lower and the savings to society, while difficult to calculate, appear substantial.
The killing of this bill in committee was somewhat surprising but many of us know there are some legislators who don’t believe stronger sentencing of repeat offenders prevents crime. They are incorrect.
This bill would have provided valuable tools to prosecutors and courts to deal with a significant threat to public safety, and I hope it will be reintroduced and passed in the next session.
Rick Wagner write more about politics in his blog, The War on Wrong.